Pairing the word “industry” with the word “music” was probably the worst thing to happen to it. When music becomes a business, it can stifle creativity and lead to reheated pop garbage, void of any real substance.
That’s where Midwest Action’s series, Indie Label Spotlight, comes in. We’re not here to bitch about the record industry and tell you how exactly major labels are ruining music. Instead, we’re here to talk about the independent labels that are doing things right.
In this edition of Indie Label Spotlight, we’re talking with Magick Ian, front man of EGO and founder of Chicago-based DIY label Maximum Pelt. The prolific, artist-friendly label has been at the forefront of the cassette tape renaissance in Chicago but has also put out a handful of 7″s and even a couple of 12″ LP’s (such as EGO’s DON’T). Other groups in the Max Pelt family include (but are not limited to) Vamos!, Thunders, PERFUME, Foul Tip, Lil Tits, and many more. This is a label that is helping to shape Chicago’s DIY music scene and we’re happy to feature them on Indie Label Spotlight.
How did Maximum Pelt get it’s start? What made you want to create your own label?
I started Maximum Pelt nearly 10 years ago as a teenager. I had already been musically active for a while then. I started out playing in a political punk band when I was 12. We played for a couple years in a thriving all ages scene on the Northside of the city where I grew up. There were a few venues in the basements of anarchist bookstores and some people’s parents were cool enough to let us throw shows in their living rooms. My parents used to run a bookstore on Ashland ave. and they would let me throw shows on Sunday nights after the store closed. We were all so green back then. My band was never able to get a recording together. I still remember being so envious of bands that had a CD.
When that part of my life ran its course I got really into folk music and bought a 4-track cassette recorder. In retrospect, it was a bit of a defining moment. I started recording music nonstop. I’d stay up all night recording, much of the material being totally improvised. In my mind, I was making the most compelling and important music on the planet. I started thinking about making albums and that is where pelt came into the picture. In its original incarnation Maximum Pelt was nothing more than a name I would slap on the jackets of my cassettes and CD’s to give them a sense of legitimacy. I had no catalog numbers and no real ambition of making anything out of it. I spent a great deal of the next few years traveling the country by greyhound bus, playing my guitar and hustling cassettes on street corners across the country and Canada. I found myself in my early 20s with no real direction. All I wanted to do was make music and party.
I realized then that life wasn’t cheap and I had no interest in working some lame job for peanuts the rest of my life. I desperately wanted to be my own boss. That’s when it hit me. I had my Blagojevich moment, “I’ve got this thing, and it’s fucking golden.” So that’s it. I started asking bands I liked if I could release tapes for them. Back then there wasn’t a ton of small independent labels like there is right now. I thought it was such a shame. This city was, and still is, teeming with all these killer bands but so few of them had any physical music. Back then the internet was nothing like it is today. Streaming music wasn’t a thing yet. If you didn’t have physical music, the only way people heard you was at shows. Tapes just made so much sense, They are affordable to produce, they sound great and the artistic options are endless!
What do you think about the rise of DIY labels? Do you think smaller independently run labels will ever take over the big corporate powerhouses?
I love the rise of the independent label! I’ve been involved in the music scene here in Chicago for over 15 years now. I’ve never seen it healthier than it is currently. I really believe that the multitude of independent labels are a big part of the success. We give bands the means to grow their audience not only in Chicago but all across the country. I don’t know for sure if we will ever usurp the corporate labels. They may be failing, but they still have a lot of money and are very stubborn. It’s interesting to think about though. If ten years from now, pelt and our contemporaries are the big record labels, will that mean that all this killer garage/punk/psych stuff that permeates our current scene is mainstream popular music? Or will we be the new corporate fat cats forcing U2 down your throat?
Is the music industry beginning to decline? I mean, Taylor Swift just earned the first platinum record of the year (so far…) Do you think people are buying less music than they used to or are they just becoming more discerning when it comes to their music?
Well the corporate music industry is certainly in decline. It’s their own fault honestly, they’ve made one bad decision after another and they are paying the price for it. People are certainly buying less music today than they used to. It’s not people using better judgement when it comes to what to buy, it’s people getting too wrapped up in modern conveniences. The big problem is streaming music services like Spotify. Too many people pay 10 bucks a month to this company, that essentially doesn’t pay the artists who created the product, and that’s it, that’s their entire music experience. It’s really sad.
Are cassette tapes making a comeback these days or did they ever really go away?
I think cassettes have always been pretty common in the DIY, independent music community. It’s a wonderful medium for recording and reproducing sound. They do seem to be experiencing a renaissance currently but I think a lot of that is related to DIY culture as a whole being in vogue right now. Couple that with the fall of the CD and you have a perfect storm for the resurgence of cassettes. At the end of the day, the cassette tape has a deliciously warm tone and is inexpensive to mass produce in both small and large quantity.
Who are your favorite local acts right now?
Perfume, Foul Tip, Lil TIts, Unmanned Ship, Vamos, Slayerkitty, you know, the whole maximum pelt family. I’m also really digging on Tina, Mama, Flesh Panthers and Melkbelly. I could go on and on, Chicago is loaded right now.
If you could work with any artist (living or dead) who would it be?
I’d give just about anything to be on a freight train with Woody Guthrie singing “Pastures of Plenty.”
How does being a musician and songwriter inform the way you run your label?
Oh it affects it a great deal. I would say pelt is very artist friendly. All we want is to be a catalyst for these bands. We have recently begun recording more of the music we put out and its really interesting seeing the recording process from the other side of things and finding out how others artists tick. It really helps to be able to relate in a personal way like that.
Will Max Pelt always be a label purely for Chicago based artists or will you start to branch out in the future?
Well actually we already have. Pelt has released a number of tapes from bands across the country. Rapstar from Brooklyn, The Leave Me Be’s from Mississippi, Faux Ferocious from Nashville, and Ghostfoot from Shreveport. We certainly will always be Chicago-centric though. Having run a house venue for the past 2 years, I’ve been exposed to so much great music from all over, I can’t help but work with some of them.
Maximum Pelt will be hosting the upcoming FREE MONDAY at the Empty Bottle on November 10th. Come out and celebrate the release of new music from EGO, Foul Tip, and Lil Tits. PERFUME will be performing as well. It’ll be an incredible night of all things Maximum Pelt! Show starts at 9pm, 21+, FREE entry.
The entire Max Pelt catalog (minus a few sold out releases) is available online, follow the links below and help support this incredible local label!